Written by: Marlene D. Malone
The influence of the politics resulting from World War II was felt in all aspects of American society from 1945 to 1965. This was felt from everything to education, new government policies both domestic and global as well as specific areas of American popular culture. One specific area of popular culture where this political influence was felt is in the new medium known as television. As a small child, I was ill quite often and had to stay home from school where I was able to learn about these television shows that aired in syndication. I became captivated with these television programs and carried an inbred curiosity into adulthood as to whether or not post-war politics influenced what was aired during that time frame. This was the basis for this project; I had to satisfy a point of curiosity from my childhood.
While television had been in a select number of American households before the outbreak of World War II, it soon became a sign of prosperity in the post-war economy. This was something my own mother, who grew up during post-war America (she was born exactly two months before the Pearl Harbor incident) had told me stories about and was validated by my own post-secondary historical studies. American soldiers were returning from duty and began to benefit from the educational and employment opportunities afforded to them by a grateful government in exchange for service to their country. Because of this, American households were looking for forms of entertainment that pitched a nice, subdued society where there were no significant social or ethical issues in the world. Normal was the desired medium for television programs, and Hollywood was happy to oblige. There were also times, however, where political and social statements were made via this medium. This is typical for post-war American society.I will show how the politics and social attitudes of the post-war society contributed to what was aired on television from 1945 to 1965.
To begin this journey into the history of television, a brief discussion of the politics during the defined time period must first take place. Once the war ended in 1945, there was a boom in the American economy that drove former GIs into the arms of prosperity. Former servicemen used their GI Bill to obtain a college education, got jobs in Corporate America, and married women so they could establish themselves as loyal, patriotic Americans. In a sense, these men were determined to fit into a type of figurative cookie-cutter mold so they can be a part of a society that preached conformity and loyalty to their country. This was also a way of life that was encouraged, even heavily advocated for by the American government. If people were willing to take a stand against subversive and un-American activities, then it should be heavily advocated for in whatever mediums that were willing to broadcast it. Why was this type of rigid conformity so widely spread and supported by the American people, specifically in the 1950s? Was it for the protecting of democracy, or was it out of fear and a necessity to protect individual activity that takes place in the privacy of a person’s private residence?
The answer to this set of questions is complicated at best. Social and political conformity was something that needed to be kept sacred in a person’s public façade. Even though there were activities occurring in private that would be considered unnatural or immoral, public conformity was necessary to keep people away and not put themselves in an uncomfortable situation. The government was known to investigate individuals suspected of engaging in activities that were considered subversive, whether they were of a political or of a more private nature. Because of this fear of having their private matters exposed and enduring public disgrace, it was better to conform to what the so-called ideal patriotic American was instead of risking the exposure of their private affairs. Television was considered the ideal medium to perpetuate what an ideal American family is.
After the end of World War II, the Western World was then consumed with fear of communism spreading from Eastern Europe to other areas of the globe. The Soviet Union, who at one time was considered to be an ally during World War II, was now an enemy and a major threat to the American way of life. This was naturally unacceptable to the American public. The threat to safety should have died with Hitler and the Japanese enemies. At this time, other countries considered the United States to be the world’s police force when it came to protecting the freedom and capitalistic societies across the globe. It was commonly thought that FDR’s Presidential successors, specifically Harry Truman, had the responsibility to carry on the work of the American Government by promising to do whatever was necessary to prevent communism from spreading across the globe.
Ironically, the American government as well as the public in general had turned to television to help spread the idea of the perfect American family so everyone would understand what was expected of them. Hollywood since its creation in the early part of the 20th century had been considered a haven for the politically outspoken such as Charles Chaplin. However, during the course of World War II, this changed as the War Department recruited help from the studios in using their stars to help entertain the troops overseas as well as sell bonds to the American Public. This association between the American government and Hollywood did not end with the sale of war bonds, though. Television, which was just coming into its own in 1948, was seen as an excellent medium for post-war propaganda to be shown to the masses without suspicion. I argue that this was one of the primary intentions of many of the television shows that were produced and aired from 1945 to 1965.
For this research project, there are an infinite number of primary sources to choose from to analyze for specific elements discussed in the earlier portion of this paper. Because of my love for older television programs as a whole, I am quite familiar with the choices I had for episodes to select. There was a great deal of deliberation and soul searching done before making my final selections. However, after much deliberation, I was finally able to select three primary sources for the foundation of this research project. Unfortunately, I had to access these sources via YouTube because of the fact that the episodes were generally not available without purchasing DVD or blu rays collections.
For my primary sources, I have chosen episodes from several programs that were popular during this time frame. The programs I chose were Amos and Andy, Ozzie and Harriet and The Lucy Show, which was the 1960s sequel to the immensely popular 1950s I Love Lucy. The motivation behind choosing this specific show as opposed to its 1950s predecessor is to use it as a basis for comparison to the other two programs. There are also specific motivations for choosing a show such as Amos and Andy as opposed to other television shows from this time period which will become apparent during the course of this paper. I wanted to not only explore what I refer to as cookie-cutter Caucasian families since there are so many television families from this time period that fit this description, but also have other shows as a basis for analysis on how social and political attitudes were shown through the medium of television. This admittedly was a bold move on my part, but part of my fascination and desire to work in the field of History, specifically pop culture, is to understand the contribution made by non-Caucasian individuals.
Even though the defined time period this paper is examining is 1945 to 1965, the 1950s is the main decide I will focus on in the majority of this paper. The reason for this is because my main argument is that the 1950s was a pivotal decade in American history in more than one way. One of the most influential events of the time period defined in this paper is the rise of McCarthyism. Not only did Senator Joseph McCarthy unfairly pursue various figures in Hollywood, but there was also a significant change in how television programs were written and aired, including the evening news. This of course was something not everyone was pleased with, but no one wanted to speak up about it.
People were deathly afraid of Senator McCarthy and his power, but there was one brave journalist was not going to stand for any more of McCarthy’s constant bullying and scare tactics, whether it meant the death of his own professional career or not. Everyone is familiar with how CBS News Journalist Edward R. Murrow reported facts about the junior Senator from Wisconsinand how he continuously contradicted himself in various speeches. This allegedly led to the downfall of the conservative leader, but not before his investigations and attempts at censoring various figures in Hollywood cost countless people their professional careers. During this time, though, many television programs portraying good, clean-cut patriotic families were developed and aired during the course of the 1950s.
A prime example of this type of programming that was described above is the famous Ozzie and Harriet. The show mostly centered around the Nelson family: Ozzie, who was a successful businessman, Harriet, his well-dressed loyal housewife who stayed at home, and their two sons David and Ricky who were “good boys”. The show was primarily built around what was termed as the everyday lives of this family and how their sons learned life lessons from their father with little if any input from their mother. The television series actually began during the 1940s as a radio show to replace comedian Red Skelton when he was drafted for military service, and Ozzie Nelson took full advantage of the opportunity. Harriet always played the dutiful wife whose role was to cook, clean and care for the children with the exception of administering discipline; this was left for the father who inferred that women were incapable of making decisions regarding discipline and teaching children important life lessons. This was the beginning of post-war American society taking women who had worked in factories during the war and shoving them back in the kitchen with no form of gratitude for their sacrifices.
When watching the chosen episode of Ozzie and Harriet, I can strongly affirm my position that shows like this were the result of attitudes of many segments of the population in 1950s America. Women, who had made numerous strides in gaining respect in the professional world, were unceremoniously reminded once the soldiers came back from fighting that they were to return to the kitchen, no questions asked. Television shows such as Ozzie and Harriet were constant reminders of what the woman’s role in the family was supposed to be, and the more shows like this emphasized this unwanted role, the more women wanted to regain the freedom they have already been given a taste of. Housewives were expected to stay home, cook, clean, produce children and entertain themselves with dramatic television shows referred to jokingly as soap operas. With very few exceptions known to me at this time, the majority of television programs during this time period portrayed American families as being Caucasian, upper middle class mom and dad with two to four children who were above-average students and owned a home in the suburbs with a car. This, however, was not always the case as demonstrated by my next example.
There is always one name that everyone is familiar with in a specific time period, and the 1950s is no exception. Everyone is familiar with the name Lucille Ball, and to some extend her husband, famous Cuban Bandleader Desi Arnaz. During the 1950s they did break the traditional mold of television families by being the first interracial married couple on I Love Lucy. Surprisingly, most people do not consider them to be an interracial couple until you point out the fact that during that time period Cubans, who were classified in the United States as Hispanics, were not Caucasians. This might be why marriage between Lucy and Desi, even though officially was interracial, was acceptable in the eyes of the majority of Americans during this time period. Again, this is something that is a little unbalanced considering that interracial relationships between Caucasians and African Americans were still considered taboo.
Even after that show went off the air and the couple divorced, they were still very influential with their production company Desilu. They produced many successful television programs that mainly aired on the CBS network, including a little science fiction tale known as Star Trek. Lucille Ball was indeed one of the most influential people in television and frequently used this to her advantage over studio executives as well as network censors. This is most likely why she was able to star in the next television program I selected as a primary source.
In 1962, The Lucy Show was created that was considered controversial for its time period. Even though this show was introducing audiences to a new “Lucy” who was a widow, it still showed her living with her children and female friend who was divorced in one house. Lucy, as she was in her 1950s show with then-husband Arnaz, was a strong, independent woman who showed audiences weekly she had no need for a husband to help her meet her financial obligations or other reasons. There was, however, one major difference between her wacky 1950s housewife and the one in her follow-up sitcom in the 1960s. What was different from this show than her earlier one was she was the person in charge of the house which was unheard of in this time period. While this type of plotline was met with fierce opposition from television censors and other executives, Lucy was determined to maintain its format to show women they had the ability to be independent if they chose to be.
There is a great deal that can be said about the women’s move for more independent characters on television. With Lucille Ball paving the way for other television actresses, there was a lot of progress being made to have characters such as Lucy Carmichael to be shown on the small screen. One such character that was popular with female television view was Alice Kramden of The Honeymooners, played by Audrey Meadows. Unlike the other demur housewives on other television sitcoms such as June Cleaver and Harriet Nelson, Alice was a housewife that would stand up to her overbearing husband Ralph, played by Jackie Gleason.Alice and Ralph would fuss at one another, particularly in front of their friends and neighbors the Nortons, but in the end they would make up and all would once again be at peace in the Kramden household. While this is still an unrealistic picture of American home life, it did have elements of reality that television audiences, specifically working class families, could closely identify with,
Another issue with television families in the 1950 is how clean cut and well-behaved the children were made out to be. As previously discussed in this paper, children such as in the show Ozzie and Harriet were always portrayed as being well-adjusted, who got above average grades in school and always did as they were told by their parents. Again, this is part of the propaganda Hollywood put out on the airwaves to give society an unrealistic picture of what families were expected to be during this time period. Any family who did not fit into this cookie cutter mold was deemed as being improper, unpatriotic and most likely socialists or worse communists. This again is something that is seen throughout most of the television programs of the time period defined in this paper.
Another area of television that must be discussed, no matter how unpleasant it might be, is how non-Caucasian characters were portrayed on television during this time period. It is well known that the majority of African American roles offered to actors on television during post-war America were of simple-minded, lazy individuals who were made fun of by the Caucasian characters on the show. This was shown in many different programs and was condoned by many Caucasian actors such as Red Skelton, Dick Van Dyke and others during the 1950s and 1960s. Even though many did feel this was an injustice toward their African American peers, many Caucasian actors chose not to speak up in defense of this practice because if they did there would be dire consequences; in short, their professional careers would be over in an instant. This was a chance most actors were not going to take if they valued their professional career.
Many people are under the mistaken impression that prejudice and racism did not exist out of the South during this time period. This, unfortunately, was not the case. Television was not the only arena were African American artists were discriminated against; it is a well-known fact that musicians such as Cab Calloway and Sammy Davis, Jr. Were forced to enter performance venues via the back door or the kitchen area because of their color. This was also true of African American actors who were not only forced to perform in roles that required them to play the stereotypical simple-minded lazy “negro”, but also were expected to play by these double standards if they expected to work in the industry. Again, it was a different time period in history and could not be openly challenged because of the social and political attitudes of the time.
Despite the racial inequality regarding television programs, there is one that began in the 1920s as a regular radio broadcast and made the transition to television. This show, Amos and Andy, did manage to challenge some of the racial stereotypes of the time period, but also did incorporate some of these elements in order to attract the Caucasian viewing audience.Television executives knew that if they allowed the cast of this show to portray themselves as comparable to their white counterparts, there would be a large mess on their hands that could not easily be contained or rectified. Because of this, it was decided that there would be certain stereotypical “negro” characteristics written into the scripts to keep the Caucasian viewing audience happy.
When watching the episode of Amos and Andy that I selected as my primary source for comparison in this paper, I did notice many elements of the “black minstrel” stereotype in many of the characters. For starters, there is not one character on that show who speaks proper English. It was typical during this time period that African Americans were not very educated and did not speak well, but there were educated negroes in the 1950s and 1960s that served their country in World War II and received education benefits so they could make a better life for themselves.Some would say this was done simply to pacify the African American soldiers even though the military was essentially desegregated in the 1940s, but what this did was make them more aware of the injustices and unfair portrayals of their people on television. This, fortunately, was about to change for the better.
One of the actual positive elements in the show Amos and Andy is the fact that the show did take place in Harlem and showed the majority of the characters as being working men and women in good paying jobs in the city. One character was also written as a business owner, one who operated a taxi service company. This type of commercial and personal success in the African American community, even in the North, was virtually unheard of during this time period in American History. What is also amazing about this show is how they portray strong female characters that not only are housewives, but are also portrayed as females who are actually in charge of the house unlike other television shows who actually have the men in charge of the house with the exception of the cooking and cleaning. In the episode I chose to view in preparation for this research paper, this strength and sense of independence in the African American female characters is quite obvious. In all actuality, this is quite refreshing to see in this program.
Additionally, there were issues that were present in the programs that I have mentioned in this paper as far as discussing controversial subjects. As previously discussed, Amos and Andy demonstrated to the viewing audience how African Americans could essentially be intelligent, successful business owners in the community. This naturally did not please television censors, but it was allowed to remain in the program content because of the other acceptable elements of the script. Additionally, this show along with others aired during the 1950s and 1960s addressed how women’s roles can change and allow more freedom as well as a sense of independence. In other words, there are ways for a woman to have it all: family, education and a career of her own.This is an attitude that has been perpetuated by other television characters such as Lucy Carmichael and Alice Kramden.
In conclusion, I have demonstrated in this paper that there are countless examples of how television programs in post-war American society were influenced by the societal and political ideas of the time period. Not only were there paranoid fears about communists in America, but there were also attitudes toward women and non-Caucasians that are considered to be unacceptable in today’s society. However, with that said, there were also programs that were aired because of the influence of icons such as Lucille Ball that broke many of the stereotypes of that time in American History. Even though many people might not think of television programs as a source of information on what society was like during that time period, it certainly does give audiences a window into the past to show us what the general social and political attitudes were during that time period. In the future I hope to educate the future generation of historians to understand the usefulness of digital sources such as television programs to gain insight into the attitudes of that specific time period.
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